"C.J., can't you put that book down for ten minutes?"
The exasperated voice, coming from the willowy blonde seated next to C.J. in the cab, contained more than a thread of real irritation. C.J. lifted her burnished copper head and directed a somewhat quizzical look at her friend, then sighed and marked her place, closing the heavy book and leaving it to rest on her lap. "Sorry, Jan," she murmured.
Jan leaned forward to address the third occupant of the cab, who was sitting on the other side of C.J. "Want to bet she starts reading again the moment we check in?"
The brunette on C.J.'s right shook her head with a long-suffering sigh, her brown eyes merry. "That's the trouble with geniuses--they just can't stop being geniuses."
"I'm not a genius, Tami," C.J. protested, her quiet voice mild but very slightly impatient.
"Lord knows that just looking at you no one would take you for a brain," Jan said. "You're no bigger than a pixie, and those ridiculous yellow eyes make you look like a bewildered kitten!"
"It's disgusting!" Tami chimed in, her voice lifting in mock outrage. "All the men cluster around you like bees at a honey pot, until you utterly dumbfound them by saying very seriously that Charlemagne was a terrific king--or whatever he was--and that the Romans were great people in spite of the orgies."
C.J. sighed again as her friends' laughter attacked her ears from both sides. They meant well--they really did. But since she had spent both school days and vacations with them all through the years, these kinds of comments were beginning to grow stale.
If asked, C.J. would have replied quite honestly that the tradition of marriage seemed a fine idea and was, after all, what one made of it. To each his own.
Her "own" was blessed singleness. The love of her life was history; no flesh-and-blood man had succeeded in peeling away so much as one layer of that set of abstractions she had long ago wrapped herself in. C.J. saw nothing wrong with that, nothing missing from her life. She was well-traveled, very well educated, and perfectly capable of holding her own in any social situation. The problem was--said her friends--that she didn't particularly care one way or the other about the normal feminine preoccupations.
Her copper hair was curly and kept short for convenience; it rarely saw a brush and never a beauty salon. She wore whatever she happened to pull from closet or drawer, usually casual slacks or jeans and, depending on the season, a sweater or T-shirt. She made no effort to cover with makeup the light sprinkling of freckles on her nose, or to emphasize the catlike slant or color of her tawny eyes. And far from encouraging the attentions of a man, she was more likely to fix him with a ruthlessly clear-seeing gaze, and demand to know what all the pretty speeches were for.
Still, her friends had tried. During the last ten years, they had "fixed her up" with one man after another. She had been ruthlessly pulled from the books in her study time after time to attend a party, see a play, hear a concert. And vacations had been riddled with seemingly casual meetings with suitable, hopefully interesting bachelors. C.J. had only the vaguest recollection of faces and none at all of names.
Four of her friends were now married and Kathy, the last to succumb to the lure of "happily ever after," was scheduled to trip down the aisle exactly one week from today.
The result, unfortunately for C.J., was that her friends were now more determined than ever to see her meet her own Prince Charming. She was aware they would give her no peace until she demonstrated herself to be a perfectly normal female and got married. Or had an affair. Even a fling would give them hope.
Jolted from her thoughts when the cab lurched on an icy spot in the road, she glanced past Jan and out the window at the snow-covered landscape. "Why," she complained mildly to the other two, "did we have to come West to find snow? Boston was blanketed with it when we left. And why does Kathy absolutely have to get married in a ski lodge? She met Patrick on a hockey field." She was referring to one of the three girls in the cab behind them.
The other two appeared to have no difficulty understanding her. Jan shrugged. "Kathy's parents were married in Aspen, so she figures it'll be a good omen. The only thing she remembers about them is that they were very much in love."
C.J. sighed. "Well, anyway, I don't see why I couldn't have flown out next weekend. The guys are."
"Only because they can't get away until then," Jan pointed out calmly. "Besides, I think we should try to get the guys out here sooner; the weathermen are predicting a blizzard for next Friday."
Sneaking a glance at Jan's face, C.J. said experimentally, "I'll have time to study--"
As she'd expected, Jan cut her off and immediately began talking about all the fun they were sure to have at the lodge, all the handsome men who were sure to dot the slopes--like ducks in a shooting gallery, C.J. thought wryly.
Listening only vaguely to the song she had heard too many times before, C.J. looked down at the book in her lap and thought wistfully of her cozy apartment and the study room of the library. She'd never be able to get any research done; the girls would see to that. They'd have her busy from morning to night.
Protesting the plans of her friends would do no good at all. Oh, she could have stopped the matchmaking with a few well-chosen words. Cold, cruel words. But she could no more have done that than she could walk on water; it wasn't in her nature to hurt anyone deliberately.
And they were her friends. They thought they knew what was best for her.
From the time they'd met as little girls in first grade, they had been friends. Twenty years lay between then and now, years of sharing little-girl things, and teenage things, and adult things. Experiences. Thoughts. Problems.
They had composed a sort of magic circle, closing ranks protectively when problems arose, and opening a place for someone that one of their number cared for. First boyfriends, and then husbands.
Staring blindly down at the book in her lap, C.J. thought of the past twenty years, and knew she could never tell her friends that she didn't want or need their help now. If it made them happy to try and find a husband for her, then so be it.
But she was nonetheless conscious of an odd restlessness within her. If there were only some way of reassuring them kindly. If there were only some way . . .
The lodge was a vast and modern building, square and without any of the Alpine features popular in the ski areas of Colorado. With the holidays just past, it wasn't crammed to capacity, but it did boast a respectable number of wintersports fans.
And those fans were very much in evidence as the cabs drew up in front of the lodge. Laughing groups of men and women were shouldering skis and heading in various directions as they tramped happily from the building, making their ways to beginner slopes or to the lifts and the more advanced slopes high above them.
C.J. stood by the cab and watched the comings and goings, only absently listening to the closer confusion of her friends sorting luggage and chattering among themselves.
Nearly an hour later, she was standing in the opened door of her room and nodding patiently as Jan scolded her for the third time.
"I mean it, C.J.--no studying! You need a break, even if you won't admit it. We barely got you to come up for air during Christmas, and you were going flat out for months before that. Promise!"
"I already promised, Jan," C.J. reminded wearily.
"Sure." Jan didn't sound convinced. "Well, we're going to call the guys and let them know we made it. Dinner's not served for another hour or so, but we'll meet here in about thirty minutes so we can go down and check the place out. How's that?"
"Fine." C.J. couldn't help but smile as her friend's blue eyes swept her sweater and jeans with an all-too-familiar expression of exasperation.
"And could you please change into something a little more presentable? You look like an urchin, damnit!" Jan sighed and her eyes softened unexpectedly. "Sweetie, can't you make an effort just this once? It won't hurt and, knowing you, you'd even enjoy yourself."
C.J. looked at her curiously. "What do you mean by that?"
Jan smiled a little ruefully. "You enjoy the unexpected, C.J. Your problem is that you conquer things too quickly. I think you get bored."
"What's your point, Jan?" C.J. asked uncertainly.
"My point, my dear, is that you can never learn all there is to know about a man."
So . . . they were back to the matchmaking again. But Jan's remark interested C.J. for some reason.
"Oh?" she prompted.
"Definitely. Every day brings a surprise. Try it--you might just find the opposite sex fascinating." With an odd little smile, Jan moved on down the hall to her own room.
C.J. closed her door and leaned against it thoughtfully for a moment. Then she dismissed her friend's advice impatiently. Jan was just up to her old tricks, that was all.
Unpacking automatically, C.J. put her things away with her usual neatness. And then, mindful of
Jan's plea, she changed clothes. The slacks and bulky sweater were not, seductively speaking, much of an improvement over the jeans and sweater from before, but they were slightly more presentable. Truth to tell, C.J. didn't own a single article of clothing which could have been termed even remotely sexy.
She paused in front of the mirror to run her fingers casually through her short curly hair and then remained for a few moments, staring at her reflection. She turned sideways and drew the sweater tightly beneath her breasts. Without conceit, she knew that her figure was very good--and somewhat startling for so petite a woman. And her legs, according to the girls' envious remarks, were "the most spectacular pair in the group."
With a sigh, C.J. allowed the sweater to assume its normal bulky shape and turned away from the mirror. What was wrong with her, for heaven's sake? Why this growing restlessness, this odd feeling of dissatisfaction with herself? Had Jan been right? Did she become bored with something once the challenge and excitement were gone?
Not history, of course. It still was, and always had been, new and exciting. But something else? Was she bored with herself? She had watched her friends grow and change for twenty years; hadn't she changed as well? Or was she still the same slightly scruffy schoolgirl, a bit cynical and yet drawn to the adventure, the challenge, of learning?
C.J. shook her head irritably and headed for the door. Nonsense. It was just Jan putting stupid ideas into her head, and causing her to question herself for the first time in years.
She went out into the hall, leaned back against the door, and folded her arms. Resolutely she fixed her eyes on the wall across from her and turned her mind to the thesis she was working on.
"C.J., would you like to borrow my lipstick?" It was Ann, her blond curls in their normal enormously attractive disarray, violet eyes gently questioning.
C.J. blinked, automatically taking in Ann's beautifully matched sweater-and-slack set. "No, thanks," she muttered and added with certain self-knowledge, "I'd only chew it off in ten minutes."
Jan emerged from her room at that moment, and came toward them. Her first words were to C.J. "Do you call that an improvement?"
"There's nothing like a friend for a kick in the ego," C.J. murmured, as though to herself.
"You ask for it. Constantly." Jan was unrepentant.
"I did the best I could, Jan."
"Sure. And I'm the queen."
"How do you do?"
Jan sighed. "I haven't been able to get a rise out of you in twenty years. Do you have any idea how frustrating that is?"
"I can imagine."
Susan was next to enter the fray. Tall, naturally regal, every red hair of her striking head in place, she strolled down the hall toward them. Cool green eyes swept C.J. in an automatic appraisal. "Only your sense of color saves you from total disaster," she said calmly.
"Thank you," C.J. said meekly.
"It wasn't a compliment."
Kathy and Tami joined them a moment later. Tami merely groaned in exasperation when she looked at C.J., but Kathy was more voluble.
"You shouldn't have gotten all dressed up just for us." She tucked a strand of long auburn hair behind one ear and sent a brown-eyed glare at C.J.
Meditatively, C.J. said, "I think I'll put an ad in the paper when we get back to Boston. 'Five friends for sale, rent, loan, or take over payments. Cheap.' "
Ignoring this defensive shot, Jan announced to the others, "Girls, we have to do something about C.J." She gestured for the others to huddle across the hall from their victim. Kathy broke from the strategy session a moment later, exclaiming that she'd forgotten her sweater and dashing down the hall to her room. The others continued to plan.
Accustomed to these tactics--and not the slightest bit offended by them--C.J. watched rather wearily. Around and around in her mind raced her earlier, incompleted wish. If only . . .
She fished her key from her pocket and unlocked her door with some vague idea of going back inside and putting on lipstick or something to appease her friends. Holding the door slightly open, she paused to stare down the hallway toward the elevators. That was when she saw the man, and a wave of uncharacteristic recklessness surged through her. Along with a wild idea.
Well, why not? There was enough romance jammed into her history-inclined mind to fake a romance. Wasn't there? A mysterious stranger and secret meetings . . . star-crossed lovers, perhaps? And at least it would get her friends off her back!
The man was tall, casually dressed in sweater and slacks, and moved with easy, loose-limbed grace.
When he was abreast of the crowd, his eyes flicked over her friends and then met C.J.'s intent gaze. He smiled, and that was all C.J. needed.
Still holding the door partly open, C.J. took a step forward, caught the startled stranger's hand and drew him quickly toward her. Looking up at him with an unintentionally bewitching smile, she said in a low, breathy voice just loud enough for her friends to hear, "Darling, I'm so glad you could make it after all!" Before the girls could see his bemused expression, she pulled him swiftly into the room.
She left the door open a crack, then said sweetly to her stunned friends. "Excuse us . . . please."
And gently shut the door.
Unaware that she was still holding the stranger's hand, C.J. put her ear to the door to listen to the numb silence outside.
Excerpted from C.J.'s Fate by Kay Hooper. Copyright © 2007 by Kay Hooper. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.